Jair Bolsonaro: the Devil?

Scott Sumner wrote recently on The Library of Economics and Liberty a piece in which he apparently buys into Reason’s understanding that Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is “the most extreme and repellent face of a resurgent, evangelical-driven right-wing attempt to drag the country backwards by decades”. Reason, on its turn, is buying into The Intercept’s understanding of Bolsonaro.

There is little new on the piece: Bolsonaro is a racist, a misogynist, a homophobic, a fascist… All the accusations that mainstream media is used to throw at him, mentioning no clear examples or just inventing ones. And once again, it is my job to defend not Bolsonaro himself, but the truth.

Bolsonaro was born in 1955. He is in many ways a typical aging Brazilian man. Coming from a lower middle-class family, as a young man, he joined the army. He was very young but lived the years in which the military took over power to defend Brazil from the communists. Many people today might think that the communist threat didn’t call for that. Nevertheless, this is not what common people in the 1960s understood. They were afraid and begged the Army to defend the country. Most people were happy to give up democracy in the name of security. Bolsonaro was among them. Maybe they were very wrong, but one should try to empathize with them.

Because of the environment in which he grew, statism and protectionism are in Bolsonaro’s blood. Actually, that’s how we all grew up in Brazil. We expect that the government will solve the problems, and we are not used to asking where the money will come from. We also believe that the government has to protect the Brazilian workers and businesspeople against foreign competition. To become economically conservative in Brazil is crazily hard. You have to fight against a deeply established culture. Bolsonaro seems to be fighting against his best instincts that tell him that he should protect the Brazilian market and promote development.

I seriously doubt that Bolsonaro is corrupt. In any functional democracy, this should be a given, but sadly in Brazil, especially after the PT years, to have an honest president is a great relief. I’m certainly not saying that he is incorruptible. Also, Bolsonaro was not virtuous enough to give up many of the privileges he had over the years as a politician. Nevertheless, compared to much of the Brazilian political class, he stands as an honest guy.

In a sense, all this talk is pointless. Bolsonaro was elected. He is the president. He is profoundly against all that the PT government did. The PT government brought Brazil into its deepest economical, political and moral crisis. Bolsonaro and the people around him are trying to revert this. I’m certainly not saying that he shouldn’t be criticized. But he needs help. And Brazilians need help as well. Our real enemy is certainly not Bolsonaro.

Back in Brazil: bureaucracy

After two years away, I’m trying to put my life back on tracks in Brazil, and one of the main obstacles for doing so is the country’s crazy bureaucracy. Maybe this will come as no surprise for many, but Brazil is known for its big fat bureaucratic system, and basically, any rational analyst I’ve ever heard or read believes that this is one of the main obstacles for the country’s economic growth.

One of the problems I’m facing is getting the money from my FGTS. FGTS stands for “Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Serviço”, a compulsory savings account that all Brazilian workers are forced to have. The moment you get a job, your employer is responsible for putting a percentage of your salary in the account. In case you are fired (or retire, or get cancer – seriously), you can get the money.

FGTS was created in 1966, at the beginning of the military regime that lasted from 1964 to 1985. Funny enough, people on the left, who demonize the Military governments, are today the main defensors of FGTS. Reality is, as you can probably tell, that this does little to help workers. FGTS has a very low interest rate, lower than the country’s inflation. That means that you actually lose money with it. Any other private investement would be better. Besides, it is clear that its reason to be is not to help workers. FGTS was created because bureaucrats realized that Brazilians had no culture of savings, therefore the government had to create one in order to have some money reserve to use. And using it government did. FGTS accounts have frequently been used by the government to try to boom the economy Keynesian style. Trying to get your FGTS money is crazily hard. Bureaucracy turns into a maze and can win you by fatigue. Perhaps I should just leave my money with the government.

The Bolsonaro government is trying to modernize the economy, and part of the process might involve putting an end to FGTS and other peculiarities created by Brazilian bureaucrats in the past. The left, however, complains that workers are losing rights. I can tell by personal experience that I would be losing my right to have a very poor savings account that I didn’t choose and that I have a very hard time to get access to. But try to explain this to millions of workers that are still hostages for labor unions and left-wing political parties.

Back in Brazil: more impressions

Another thing that calls my attention in Brazil (or rather, in Rio de Janeiro) are the crazy traffic jams. All day long, traffic moves painfully slowly. Really. There is no rush hour. Every hour is rush. The reason is not hard to understand: there are way too many buildings for too few streets and poor options in mass transportation.

Thinking about this, I came across this excellent text. It is in Portuguese, so for those who can’t read it, I’ll summarize. Basically, zoning laws in Rio de Janeiro through the 20th century were completely crazy, following a very nasty relationship between politicians and real state companies. A company wanted to build taller buildings and profit, the city hall would not oppose, especially when a luxurious apartment was waiting for the mayor. The result is that old neighborhoods like Tijuca and Botafogo simply have no space on the streets for so many cars.

But what is the problem with many tall buildings? That’s what New York is all about, and I simply love the Big Apple! Well, that’s true, but NY has something that Rio doesn’t: a great mass transit system. Rio has four subway lines. Or three. Wait, maybe it’s just one. Here is the thing: on paper, Rio has four subway lines, which already makes no sense, since it only has lines 1, 2 and 4. Line 3 was planned but never built. Line 4 is just an extension of line 1, and line 2 trains enter line 1 (!). Although the system was privatized in the 1990s, it is very clear that it maintains a very suspicious connection with the state government. Sergio Cabral, Rio’s former governor, and presently in jail, was married to a lawyer who defended the Metro company. It is also clear that bus companies subsidize politicians who maintain their interests. In sum, Cariocas are hostages to a terrible public transport system that favors a criminous relationship between big companies and politicians.

Rio ends up representing very well a problem we see all over Brazil: people believe this is capitalism. Because of that, they vote for socialist parties. It should be painfully obvious from the examples of USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and so many others that socialism simply doesn’t work. But here is the thing: people in Rio (and actually in Brazil and Latin America in general) suffered and suffer so much under crony capitalists that they can’t help but thinking that socialism might be the answer.

Hear, World! Socialism failed, just like Mises predicted. But as long as people suffer under crony capitalists, it will still be appealing, be it in a poor neighborhood or a college campus in the US, be it in a poor country in Latin America. The job is not done. Freedom isn’t free. We still have a long way to go freeing people from evil.

Back in Brazil: first impressions

After almost two years living in the US, I’m back in Brazil, more precisely in Rio de Janeiro, for a short visit. When I left Brazil two years ago, I was hoping that Bolsonaro would be elect president and that with that things would start to change for the better. I still have hope, but change is slower than I would wish.

Things in Brazil are crazily expensive. One liter of milk is almost 4 reais. One liter of gasoline is 5 reais. Considering that a poorly skilled worker makes less than 2 thousand reais, imagine how much it costs to live in Rio de Janeiro. If you live in the US, just remember how much you pay for a gallon of milk or gasoline. And also how much a poor, very simple worker makes in the US.

But thankfully Brazil has universal healthcare! Only that hospitals have always been terrible here. Seems to me that Brazilian TV has a video that they just play in a loop, showing how terrible it is. Sadly, mainstream media continues to ask the government for better health (and better education, and better services in general) instead of admitting that government-run services will simply never be good.

Brazilians (or at least people in Rio) are also very aggressive. I believe I understand why. Everyone here has been deeply hurt.  “It´s the law of the jungle”. Or “grab what you can and let the devil take the hindmost”. Injustice has hurt these people pretty deeply.

So, yeah. Keeping desiring Socialism! Keep supporting the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Nothing has helped poor people over the years more than free markets. Few things have hurt them more than socialism. Coming back to Brazil, I can tell.

Some lessons from Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro has been in government for almost six months now. I believe I can proudly say that I saw this coming before many people: Bolsonaro would be the next president in Brazil. However, he might not be the best person for the job.

In my assessment, Bolsonaro is not the usual politician. As John Mearsheimer brilliantly observed, politicians lie. A lot. It should be a given: dogs bark, cats climb on trees, and politicians lie. Bolsonaro, as far as I can tell, doesn’t. And that might be part of the problem: he always speaks his mind. Nothing is concealed, even when strategy might call for that.

In the past week, Bolsonaro sent an open letter to some of his followers (not written by him) manifesting how hard it is to govern Brazil. The letter sounds like a vent for the president’s frustration: “You Either Die A Hero, Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain”. But what Bolsonaro means by all that is not clear. For all sorts of reasons, corruption is a living part of Brazilian politics. Actually, of politics in general, just a little more down there. So why the president sounds surprised by that?

Some people in the press speculated that Bolsonaro plans a coup. Call that it is impossible to govern with the current congress and just close it. To be sure, that is not unthinkable, and Brazil has historical precedents for that. But that doesn’t sound like something that Bolsonaro would do. Sounds more like that he is trying to bypass Congress and govern with direct popular support.

Brazilian congress is fabulously corrupt, and Bolsonaro still enjoys great popularity. Maybe he wants to use that to press Congress for the changes Brazil needs. In any case, it is a good opportunity to remember some lessons: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or, in other words, if men were angels, we wouldn’t need government. And if we were governed by angels, we wouldn’t need checks and balances. But we are not governed by angels. Therefore, checks and balances are necessary. The downside is that this makes the government slow when important changes are necessary. The temptation is to close democratic institutions and just do things the old fashion way: through a dictatorship. I don’t think that is where Brazil is going right now. But it’s important to remember that we need way more than a president. We need people who really understand and appreciate freedom. An uneducated people on these matters will always grow impatient and vote for an easy solution.

How US foreign policy hurts Christians worldwide

Christians are the most persecuted religious group worldwide. The 20th century produced more Christian martyrs than any other period in history. During a great part of that century, Christians were mostly persecuted by totalitarian regimes in communist countries like the USSR and China. Today persecution still comes from communist governments, such as the ones in China, Cuba and North Korea, but mostly Christians are persecuted in countries where Muslims control the government. With that in mind, I would like to answer two questions: Why is that and can Christians in the West do something about it?

Typically, Christians (and other religious groups) are persecuted by totalitarian governments. The definition of a totalitarian regime is that it can comport no opposition or dissidence. A totalitarian regime is characterized by the attempt to control your whole life, including your religious life. Totalitarian regimes fear losing control over their population. Christians gathering for worship are mistaken for a seditious group. This is the reason why these governments persecute Christians.

Until World War I, US foreign policy was mostly characterized by what is typically defined as isolationism. US presidents since the Founding Fathers understood that Europe was a mess and that the US would do well to keep away from political entanglements with it. This changed with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson understood that it was the US’ mission to rebuild the World after its own image. With that in mind, he struggled, against the US population, to get the country into World War I.

US involvement in World War I proved to be essential for that war and for all US foreign policy since then. The tendency in Europe, since the 17th century, was for major wars to end with a new power equilibrium. This is not hard science, but pretty much every hundred years Europeans would fight a major war and then rest for another hundred. That was so with the 30 Years War, the War of Spanish Succession, and the Napoleonic Wars. All these conflicts had one thing in common: the emergence of a new great power in Europe moved other countries to balance that power. The tendency, in the end, was equilibrium. That was the case with World War I: the European system was balanced after the Napoleonic Wars. However, towards the end of the 19th century, Germany emerged as a new great power. Other countries allied against it. This scenario was delayed by Otto von Bismarck’s brilliant foreign policy but proved ultimately inevitable.

World War I should end like any other European War since the 17th century: that generation realizes that it is impossible for a single country to dominate the entire continent, diplomats accept the status quo and anyway, everybody becomes war-weary and more inclined to peace. But US intervention prevented that from happening. My hypothesis (that I have no idea how to test) is this: without US intervention, World War I would finish with peace without winners. It would be considered a draw. With US intervention, however, France managed to punish Germany for the War. Germany, on its part, became vengeful against France. England understood that it was better to stay on the other side of the channel. World War I became only the first half of a major conflict that continued some twenty years later with World War II. If in World War I US involvement was optional, in World War II it became inevitable. And after World War II came the Cold War, and the US hasn’t stop ever since.

US involvement in World War I had a number of consequences. German revanchism against France gave way to the rise of Nazism. In Russia, the Bolsheviks rose to power as well. Another effect of World War I was the end of the Turco-Ottoman Empire. Following Woodrow Wilson’s vision, that empire was to be divided into several countries, according to several ethnic groups identified by westerners. In actuality, England and France took the chance to divide the Middle East into several colonies. Christians were persecuted in Nazi-Germany and the USSR. The Middle East is a mess to this day. Before World War I, American missionaries were welcomed in the Turco-Ottoman Empire.

British ones were not, because that empire understood (I suppose correctly) that they would be hard to separate from the imperialist interests of Great Britain. The US mostly took England’s place in this regard. To make matters worse, oil was the fuel of the second industrial revolution that began at the end of the 19th century. Soon after, it was discovered that the Middle East had some of the greatest deposits on the planet. The US became the first world superpower, and to maintain that it needed oil. Lots of oil. It is a vicious cycle.

In sum, I am blaming Woodrow Wilson and his foreign policy for everything bad that happened ever since. The Founding Fathers had a very good foreign policy, that made the US and US citizens welcomed worldwide. Woodrow Wilson broke that pattern, much because he was a liberal Christian who thought that the US role was to make the world democratic by force.

I don’t think it’s too late to change. It might be unthinkable to just withdraw from every international commitment the US has today, but it is definitely time for a gradual change. A world without major US military intervention may be – counterintuitively – a world safer for Christians.

Liberalism in International Relations

Besides Realism, Liberalism is one of the greatest schools of knowledge in International Relations. Just like Realism, it is not easy to define Liberalism, for liberals come in many shapes and colors. However, I believe we can point to some core characteristics of liberals in International Relations.

One of the difficulties we find when discussing liberalism in International Relations is the same difficulty we have with Liberalism in general. Different from Marxism, for example, Liberalism is a very broad intellectual tradition, with many different thinkers. Sometimes I ask my students “who is the most important Marxist thinker?”. I hope they will answer Marx! And then I ask “who is the most important liberal thinker?”. Besides that, Liberalism went through a major transformation between the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the ways to make a distinction between the old and the new liberalism is to talk of classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Classical liberalism is very similar to what we call conservatism (or even Realism!). Modern Liberalism is often associated with the Democratic Party in the US.

In any case, I believe that the central tenet of liberalism is the defense of liberty. Liberals (especially classical liberals) believe that if individuals are set free from outside constraints, the natural result is progress. In other words, Liberals have great faith in the possibility of change – positive change. This contrasts with the general pessimism of Realists.

In very practical terms, although they agree with Realists that the International System is anarchic, Liberals see more space for cooperation between states towards a more pacific and prosperous World. Where Realists see competition, Liberals see at least the potential for cooperation. One of the ways that states can cooperate with one another is through shared values. These values can be fleshed into international organizations, such as the UN or the WTO.

In sum, liberals agree on a lot with Realists but have much more hope for international cooperation. I must say that I really want them to be right, but think that they are wrong. Realists seem to have a very strong point when they show how much the anarchy in the international system stops greater cooperation. And Liberals themselves are not waiting for a World government that will somehow solve that. I’m not saying that cooperation and progress are impossible or that they are undesirable. I’m just saying that I’m not convinced that they can happen the way Liberal Theory of International Relations describes.